At its best, Timecop1983’s latest recording delivers serene popwave creations packed with compelling artistic choices and top-notch sound production. Finding these moments is no small feat, however, and the most rewarding entries often feel lost in a surplus of redundant compositions, many of which are missing the spark and inspiration needed to redeem their repetitive song structures. The album’s shortcomings make it a tough sell for those who struggle with synthwave’s new love affair with soft, sentimental songwriting, though it’s likely to please longtime fans of the artist with its distinctive vocal performances, candied synth tones, and high-gloss finish.
A prominent creator within the history of synthwave music, Timecop1983 has consistently been at the forefront of the trend toward gentle, dreamy compositions accompanied by modern vocal deliveries, establishing the sound of popwave music alongside artists like FM-84 and The Midnight. Night Drive takes another step away from the outrun-oriented sound of the artist’s 2014 Journeys album into a more romanticized approach with ultra soft, buttery production, though like nearly all music within the style, Timecop1983’s latest offering lacks a certain amount of substance. Several instrumental tracks on the recording are nearly indistinguishable from one another — a pattern that will feel familiar to fans of past Timecop1983 releases — while a few of the singing performances are disappointing. Night Drive’s pretty tone and innocuous musical content make it an accessible and generally enjoyable listen, though the lack of diversity within songs and across the tracklist make repeat listens feel like a chore more than a pleasure.
Timecop1983’s continued evolution is apparent on the opener, thanks in part to a collaboration with the current reigning champions of soft synthwave, The Midnight. “Static” could be an entry on Nocturnal and no one would even look twice, and it’s a natural follow-up to the artists’ collaboration on “River of Darkness.” “Static” is peppered with The Midnight’s distinctive, reverb-heavy effects, as well as the backdrop of rainy city streets that is becoming a staple of the duo’s introspective soundscapes. In spite of the clichéd raindrops, “Static” is a well executed opener with a faultless vocal performance and plenty of rewarding details, and it succeeds in generating excitement for the rest of the album.
A few instrumental pieces offer a similarly meaningful payoff. “Cruise” and “It Was Only a Dream” are standouts with subtle and rewarding changes that give listeners something to look forward to beyond the first minute of each song. “It Was Only a Dream” is particularly attractive, featuring a lilting composition that rivals the best ambient and cinematic synthwave music. Free from steady drum beats or percussion, the track glides through a shifting soundscape with immaculate synth tones and graceful melodies, and it’s easy to sink into its beautiful ambience.
However, Timecop1983’s best instrumental efforts are compromised by overly similar pieces that are missing the same spark and subtlety. If there was one serious drawback to past recordings from the artist, it was the repetition of the songs and their changeless features. In that regard, little has changed on the latest release. Entries like “On the Run,” “Skylines,” and “Nightfall” maintain an overly linear songwriting path through their duration, and the generic melodies and straightforward beat of the music aren’t strong enough to support the heavy repetition, especially when they crest the five-minute mark. Every track hovers around 80 BPM, and by the time the 55-minute album nears its conclusion, the musical journey starts to feel like riding a stationary bike to videos of driving through the desert.
As with nearly all creations within popwave, such as The Midnight’s Nocturnal, the relatively featureless instrumentation on Timecop1983’s latest release depends on singing performances for much of its personality. Guest vocals from five different artists add landmarks to the listener’s trip through Night Drive’s neon-blasted desert, though a few of them fall far behind The Midnight’s excellent contribution. LeBrock delivers his signature style of shouted vocals on “Too Late,” though he sometimes slips out of key and his aggressive approach feels better suited to the artist’s own style of rock-flavored music than to TimeCop1983’s dream-like soundscape. Kinnie Lane and Josh Dally add contributions that are likable enough, though their songs feel relatively bland and never encourage repeated listens. The only other singing performance that sticks the landing is “Back to You” featuring The Bad Dreamers, which is appropriately slotted as the second vocal track on the album. Like “Static,” the piece offers a silky smooth and faultless performance with memorable melodic hooks that make it a standout on the recording.
If Night Drive were trimmed down to a five or six-song EP, it would be excellent. “Static” and “Back to You” match the gold standard of vocal tracks in the style alongside creations from Nina’s Sleepwalking, and FM-84’s Atlas, while a few of the instrumental pieces are satisfying and deceptively deep. Like the best popwave, the recording successfully generates nostalgia for the past without actually sounding like music from the ‘80s, making it a uniquely modern flashback and not simply a re-tread of old ideas. However, the unvarying pace and songwriting of the album cause its many strengths to wear thin across 11 songs, especially in comparison with recent releases like New Arcades’ Nothing is Lost.
Night Drive might be a tough sell for fans of the synthwave genre who enjoy detailed compositions, music that gets its pulse above 80 BPM, or retro vocal stylings over the emotive, modern mainstream approach. However, longtime fans of Timecop1983 and those who are invested in the rapidly expanding realm of soft synthwave should have few complaints. The production is picturesque, the music is soothing, and the collaborations with diverse artists add much-needed flavor and variety to the tracklist. The album may not have enough depth to justify its full running time, but taken in small amounts, Night Drive is capable of a big payoff.
Rating: 68 / 100 (Adequate)
Song Variety: 2
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Buy the Album: Bandcamp
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